Archive of Indian Music, open access, and meeting Vikram Sampath

When I was about 5 years old, like many South Indian parents, mine enrolled me in a classical music class – called Carnatic music in South India, different and similar in many ways to the Hindustani music practised more in North India and Northern parts of Karnataka. My father has always been a huge fan of Carnatic music and in my childhood, we were loyalists to a blink-and-miss shop in a hidden alleyway in Malleswaram from where my father would source more audio cassettes to add to his ever growing collection. When he was transferred to Mangalore, he’d shuttle a few of his cassettes between Bangalore and Mangalore every time he travelled, and gush about the music and how it kept loneliness at bay. My interest in Carnatic music peaked when I was about 17, 3 years after I had stopped going to classes, when I saw Appa with his elbows resting on the radio stand gently weeping to a song, Maa Ramanan, in Hindolam. The lyrics of the various songs – spiritually rich and full of stories from Indian mythology caught my fancy, and my father’s staunch insistence in the days when I was a punk-rock fan –  that I would grow to enjoy this music of my roots more than he did – came true.

While editing Wikipedia for articles on Carnatic music a few months back, I noticed the dearth of media related to Carnatic and Indian classical in the form of sound recordings on the website, and decided to start putting up really basic recordings – nothing significant. I was considering other ways to crowd source classical music from enthusiasts who were not professional singers but who had learned for several years as I had and who probably performed locally, and hoped that they would see as much reason in the Creative Commons License and uploading to Commons as I did. This is when my first questions about the licensing on the Archive of Indian Music were triggered. I have been listening to recordings on the AIM since its inception. My father and me were very amused by a GNB recording on the website that brought to the fore his young earnestness and his trademark electric brighas that were flowing in a most indisciplined manner, beautiful in a very different way from his seasoned singing many years later. I was bewitched. I spent many hours and many evenings in the company of the recordings on AIM – I had often wondered why they had disabled track downloads, but I was young and naive then and unquestioningly accepting of the ways of the world.

While researching lots of classical music recordings for my Wikipedia side project, I noticed a particular recording on AIM, by an artist called Bidaram Krishnappa who died in 1931, and wondered about the copyright. It had certainly been about 70+ years since Krishnappa’s death; could AIM really hold the copyright for the digitised recording even though the actual gramophone record was in the public domain? I wrote to Lawrence Liang, a wonderfully approachable lawyer dealing with IP and copyright in Bangalore, asking him to clarify. I got my answer about 3-4 weeks later because he was travelling, and he said that the copyright was indeed strange since the gramophone records themselves were definitely in the public domain. I wrote again to the Archive of Indian Music and Mr. Vikram Sampath – author and historian who manages the archive.

After about 3-4 days of waiting for a reply, my impatience got the better of me yesterday and I went accompanied by a wonderfully supportive friend, Nandita, from work to look for the offices of the Archive, which are about 4-5 km from where I work, and had quite the unexpected adventure.  The AIM website lists two addresses – an office address (OA) and another registered office address(ROA). The security at the OA – which is really the office of the Manipal trust – told us that the company had shut down, and asked us to contact a certain Mr. Ravi Shankar who confirmed that the Archive had moved. We then decided to prank an office friend who lives close by, and buy a mud pot for Nandita’s chrysanthemums and snacked on some momos before taking an auto to the ROA – we were vaguely suspicious that the ROA was probably Mr. Sampath’s home, and it was indeed!

We called up from the reception, and asked if we could come over to visit, and were received by Mr. Sampath’s mother – a wonderfully warm old Bangalorean who suggested that we take an appointment with Mr. Sampath at the IGNCA, where he’s the Executive Director. After talking for a little while, we decided to leave and were waiting for the elevator to reach the 5th floor. The elevator reached floor 5 and out walked Mr. Sampath from the elevator! So, we went back inside, a little amused at serendipity. I spoke to him and gushed about how long I had been listening to the AIM, of similar projects supported by Wikimedia Commons and how AIM can keep the project alive with support from the Wikimedia Foundation while also ensuring that the records go into public domain – where they can be accessed by anyone!

Mr. Sampath’s primary concern was that if the recordings were not under copyright, then AIM wouldn’t be able to sustain the project since it would lose the opportunity to monetise the downloads of the recordings while continuing to encumber costs to buy gramophone records and the digitising equipment. I suggested the use of grants from Wikimedia to ensure that AIM have enough to digitise the gramophone records while also ensuring that the recordings are licensed the way they must be, to ensure easy accessibility to anyone with an Internet connection. Indian

Classical music has always been quite elitist in India, with the common issues of caste creeping in – Carnatic music is worse off than Hindustani music in this regard. The availability of recordings in the public domain, free of any charge would aid in the democratisation of classical music and enable anyone with an Internet connection to access them. Anybody can download the recordings, take them to the remotest corners of this country and the world and play the recordings for people to listen to, or teach it to people without the need for an Internet connection. Internet is often intermittent in rural India. Part-time and full-time students/enthusiasts of classical music can download the recordings and listen to them without having to pay a rupee! The best treasure of Indian heritage would belong to the masses of this glorious country, as it rightfully should.

Mr Sampath seems positive at the prospects, and I can only imagine how much this would change the landscape of Indian articles pertaining to Indian culture on Wikipedia. Soon, you might just be able to download a recording by Bidaram Krishnappa or GNB or MS off Wikimedia Commons in a perfectly legal way – access to the best of classical Indian music to anyone in the world. I can foresee spending hours referencing the tracks in all the articles they belong in. It is a wonderfully satisfying feeling to be a cog in the open access wheel.

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